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 Justine's Journal

CackleTV Productions


Arctic Kayaking - keeping tradition alive
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I recently received an email from Douglas Mcnaughton in Hudson Bay in the Arctic. He is a local pastor who is trying to re-introduce a paddling life-style to the Inuit and native youth. He was emailing me because he recently showed one of my DVDs to the Inuit youth and, according to Douglas, it came as a total surprise to them that non-Inuit people are using kayaks all over the world. It also surprised them that we like kayaking!

Douglas was emailing me to ask my permission to show some parts of my DVDs to some of the villages in the Arctic, as part of their Paddling For Life Program, which is a program to help them reclaim a part of themselves. Of course, I said I'd be honored.

I also asked Douglapermission to share some of the things he emailed me about on my blog as I was touched by the work he is doing out there and fascinated by the situation in the Canadian Arctic which I knew very little about. So the rest of this blog is Douglas words.

The average age in the Eastern Arctic is only 15 years. It is not like Greenland; there are no traditional style kayaks except for those that are made for museums or collectors. We have been trying to re-introduce kayaking as a life-style. We have also been using kayaking as part of an anti-suicide program. The suicide rate is over 10% right now. Most youth would love to be able to go out of the ghetto like villages that the Government put them into in the 1970s; but they cannot buy gas for a motor boat or even for a snow mobile. In short, you can only go as far as you can walk and the next village is ussually 120 mile away along the coast.

I want to show your DVDs to the youth so they will dream, hope and maybe even try and kayak the routes that Inuit used for thousands of years. Their grand-parents routinely paddled 70-100 miles a day across some of the worst water on the planet. I am not asking that they start with those routes. I want them to see that other people, even non-Inuit, can and do travel long distances and enjoy this most amazing Inuit watercraft.

The villages where we would be viewing parts of your DVDs would be on the Eastern Hudson Bay and the Hudson Straits. (much better kayaking on this side of the Hudson Bay and more wild.) Right now everything is ice for the first time in June for maybe 10-15 years. There is some open water in the Northern Hudson Straits but the rest is still all ice today. Everything is upside down.

Until the 1960s the Inuit here had hundreds of very long kayaks (about 22 ft) and known to be fast even by Inuit standards. (Hudson Bay records and missionary journals routinely report them sustaining 6 knots.) The last kayaks of the 1960s were all sold to museums and the men and women who made them and travelled in them have mostly passed away since then. Since then some efforts have been attempted to make new kayaks, but the traditional cultural knowledge and life-style is all but totally gone. So we are trying to transition to modern kayaks with all of the modern clothings etc. (However they do not like european paddles at all.) Not everyone agrees with using modern kayaks designed by non-Inuit. Modern production kayaks are much smaller and slower according to the elders and "not as safe." They even say my traditional style paddle is too short for the "fourth gear" level of paddling they would have with a 10-12 ft paddles. They also say they never rolled their kayaks; and they were 100% against teaching rolling, until I told them it is now a sport and a competition in Greenland. (Instead of rolling they always tied the kayaks like a catamaran or trimaran or whatever for bad weather or for sailing in stronger winds or for training young people. There is documentation that supports these methods.) I am working to learn exactly how this was done at sea. They always say, very easy.

Your DVDs will also help the few remaining elders who kayaked 40 some years ago, because your movies will get the youth talking and asking question about kayaking that the elders can answer. (They know things about kayaking that I have never read in any books. ) My hope is that then the youth will be supported in the effort to reclaim this part of their culture and a healthier life-style. When I first proposed this idea the elders did not like it because modern kayaks do not paddle like traditional kayaks and they did not think todays youth could paddle safely. Since then Inuit youth programs have taken a handful of inexperienced youth from various villages and travelled from the eastern Hudson Bay and travelled hundreds of miles with them to the top of the Hudson Bay in six weeks. Then the following year, the program gathered a new group of inexperienced youth and traveled from Ivujivik to Quaqtaq, basically the length of the very worst part of the Hudson Straits. Then the next year another inexperienced Inuit youth group did the whole of Ungava Bay and every village. When I tell people in the south that inexperienced youth did these incredible trips as their first kayak exerience most say they don't believe it. Most non-Inuit people don't believe the Inuit youth either. Maybe that is why the Inuit youth here seemed to identified with the young Russian who was with you in the Kamchatka adventure. So that is one part of your DVD that we will be viewing in the villages. (The Inuit young women also were excited that two women where stronger kayakers than the Russian man. They say now they understand that women can kayak too!)

The Inuit also like it that you try new things in your DVDs and new places to kayak around the world. It will encourage them and already has encouraged the few that have seen your DVD at my home. They say you opened their eyes.

In other places, where you show some of the traditional skills you frequently refer to these as "Greenland style". The Inuit elders here do not like it when non-Inuit refer to traditional paddles and kayaks as Greenland kayaks. (So I won't translate those words exactly) You probably know that the Greenland Inuit also once completely lost the knowledge of kayaking. This is common knowledge in the Arctic and a story passed on for generations now. It was a determined group of Inuit from what is now Arctic Canada who brought the knowledge and skills of kayaking back to the Greenlanders in the early to mid-19th century. The Greenlanders had been without Kayaks or even the knowledge of them by 1810 when the Ross expidition arrived (European historical confirmation). Some epidemic had killed off so many Greenland Inuit after the 16th or 17th century that the cultural knowledge was lost and so they only hunted seals from the ice. A famous Inuit shaman in the Eastern Arctic, whose name is still well known, had a vision in which he saw the Greenland Inuit as lost people (inuit means people). But he did not know they were in Greenland or where these lost people were living. He just knew from the vision that they were real and needed to be found so that the Inuit could be connected again. He and maybe 30 Inuit families began a long wandering trek through the Arctic over many many years. They eventually crossed over into Northern Greenland and found the remains of old dwellings but no Inuit, so they travelled south down Greenland until they met the Greenlanders. There they stayed and taught many Inuit cultural skills like the knowledge of kayaks and other things. The descendents of some of these Inuit are still in Greenland today (although others returned to the area around Pond Inlet and Northern Baffin Island in modern Nunavut.

Ironically, the situation is reversed today. Greenlanders Kayak and the eastern Arctic Inuit youth know almost nothing about it. Maybe we should bring you and the Greenland Inuit here now to reintroduce kayaking to this generation.

I will start showing parts of your DVDs at two villages: Ivujivik at the northern most tip of the Hudson Bay and the Hudson Straits; and also Chisasibi near the top of the eastern James Bay/Hudson Bay region. Chisasibi is Cree and Inuit and I am letting them compete with kayaking trips and hopefully games. It is also the location best situated for bring more kayaks in from the south. Two or three youth in both villages have already taken part in the long trips I mentioned above, but I am hoping to increase that number to dozens per village.

The Inuit youth will certainly want you to come and kayak with them someday. We are talking about re-tracing the traditional route between the Belcher Islands (in the middle of Hudson Bay) and the mainland. No-one has ever attempted this in modern kayaks and no-one has done it by kayak in maybe 60 years. According to the Inuit elders, It can only be done while there is still some ice on the Hudson Bay. I will keep you posted.


It might also be good, I think, if kayaking people outside the Arctic knew that the vast majority of Inuit and Inuit Kayak designs in the world are not in Greenland; and that an enormous amount of knowledge about kayaking and paddling over hundreds if not thousands of years is about to be lost with this last generation of Inuit elders in the eastern Arctic. Only tiny amounts have been recorded about the hundreds of kayaks and techniques used, and most of what has been written has been by people who never (or barely) kayaked and did not speak Inuititut. The special techniques and methods for a life of kayaking have not been recorded.

For example, the Elders of the Hudson Straits and Eastern Hudson Bay used a very different paddling method than anything used in Greenland and they had much larger and faster kayaks here. Take a look at the Cape Wolstenholme kayak of 1910. A swede- form speedster of over 22ft, designed for the extreme current, high winds, and big seas. Justine if you had a kayak like that you could fly on your adventures; just like they did. Across the Hudson Straits for a day trip with 10 knot cross current! No problem.

One of the unrecorded secrets seems to be that the wooden hoop around the Inuit kayak cockpit opening was designed for paddling purposes. (I thought it was to keep water out or to attach the tuliq. I was Wrong.) So far, I have not found anyone who has written how this is actually designed for paddling purposes. I found out by accident when I listened to the Inuit elders complain about the Inuit youth using modern kayaks. Apparently, there are several traditional stages in the traditional forward stroke besides those known or used in Greenland. The cockpit hoop was used almost fulcum-like for paddling purposes after the more vertical strokes (at two levels) were used to start, accelerate, increase to 5-6 knots; then then go to a horizontal stroke pivoting the paddle midway against the front of the vertical cockpit hoop. (A mat of polar bear fur was used to keep this silent.) In my mind it seems the traditional paddle then functions almost as a sweep (this is were they say I also need the longer traditional paddle of 10-12 ft.) They told me this in detail only after I had paddled a 70 mile day along one of their traditional routes. They say this method allowed them to travel very fast all day without sweating (which can be deadly in the Arctic as it can result in hypothermia quickly).

This Inuit paddling technique might be something that modern sea-kayakers could learn for long distance crossings with heavy loads.

I have asked a few manufacturers if they could install this hoop idea so the Inuit elders could teach this paddling method before they are all dead, but so far no one is developing even a proto-type on a modern kayak. You probably know lots of folks who would be interested.

You have my permission to put some of my Arctic ramblings on your Blog; My hope would also be that some experienced kayakers would consider helping the Inuit youth recall the traditions of a paddling life style through kayaking in the Arctic.


If you’d like to contact Douglas and offer any help then write a comment on this blog


Anonymous Greg from Alaska said...

That is such a fantastic, interesting story. Thank you for sharing it.

10:22 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend of mine from Chicoutimi has plans this summer to return to the north to continue reintroducing kayaking to the locals there (I accused him of selling ice to Eskimos - as a joke); he was working in Kangiqsujuaq, QC last fall. Interesting!

Susan V.

5:39 pm  
Blogger Michael said...

An interesting post indeed Justine! I'd be happy to help Douglas in his endeavours having worked, albeit from southern Canada, for several years to assist Inuit to begin building qajait in the traditional way. He can contact me through my blog at

1:12 am  

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